On the shaded terrace of Le Bistrot de Pierrerue, in a drowsy, sunbaked old village close to the middle of nowhere, our Lycra-clad gang has a Sunday lunch to remember. The entree – warm goat's cheese, coated in grated pistachio and molded into little balls, and served with watermelon and black figs drizzled in honey – is heavenly, and goes down a treat with a glass (or two) of invigoratingly crisp Provencal rose (a tipple which our guide, Marcos, insists, 'puts energy into your legs' and accounts for 85 per cent of Provence's wine output).
The rose continues to flow during our mains (sea bream with rice, zucchini and tomatoes) and dessert (a zesty lemon tart), stopping only when we're offered espresso by Maryvonne, the American expat owner of this most Provencal of bistros (it proudly flaunts a Bistrot de Pays sign, a recognised regional label bestowed on establishments that serve tasty, nutritious food using fresh local produce). We lunch for the best part of two hours – roughly the same time that we'd spent on the saddle this morning, cycling a mildly undulating 25 kilometres from our starting point, the tiny, somnolent village of Mallefougasse, 90km north-east of Aix-en-Provence, to this equally petite and sleepy settlement, on the cusp of the luscious Luberon Regional Natural Park.
Considering how satisfied (OK, stuffed) I feel right now, I wonder out loud about the average calorie consumption on this five-day cycling tour, which is run by high-end Toronto-based operator Butterfield & Robinson (a company that toasts its 50th anniversary in 2016). As we pedal and munch our way through arguably France's most delectable region, will we burn off as many calories we consume? Marcos says he thinks so, probably; though this lean, bearded 32-year-old Brazilian is, I note, smiling as he speaks. Although this bespoke tour is, in many ways, luxury active travel at its finest, it revels in a carrot and stick approach, where thigh-straining (and occasionally) lung-busting effort is handsomely rewarded. Prior to our Pierrerue feast, we'd been hauling ourselves up a zig-zagging, pine tree-lined hill when Betsy (one of our seven-strong, largely middle-aged group) remarked, half-jokingly and quite breathlessly: "You know, I booked this tour because I thought it would be pretty flat."
Pedalling, almost effortlessly, beside us, Marcos assured us that, apart from Mont Ventoux (1912m) – which hosts a notoriously tricky leg of the Tour de France – there are no 'really big' mountains in Provence. "But," he added, with a grin, "there are lots of ups and downs." While our pre-lunch ride was moderately strenuous, our postprandial exercise is anything but. We cover just 12km – a few short climbs, but largely downhill, past fields laden with plump pumpkins, sunflowers (both scorched and still standing) and lavender flowers shorn of their colourful vigour (it's early September, a few months past peak blooming season). Under radiant, painter-friendly blue skies – it's like this all week; you can see why the van Goghs and Cezannes loved it down here – we laze the rest of the afternoon by the pool of Hotel Le Couvent des Minimes, our home, and venue for our evening meal, for the next two nights.
At dusk, following a champagne-fuelled petanque lesson with a local boules champion on the front lawn of this swish former convent-turned-five-star resort, we tuck into another three-course affair; the succulent highlight of which is shoulder of lamb with ginger, crispy onions and ratatouille (a traditional Provencal vegetable stew). Minimes' head chef Jerome Roy, who learned his trade in the kitchens of Thierry Marx and Michel Troisgros (two of the most celebrated names in French cuisine), is big on Provencal ingredients – including those grown in the steep terraces looming beside the hotel. Apparently green-fingered Franciscan missionaries would beaver away here in bygone days, growing fruit, veg and herbs.
We become accustomed to sampling seasonal organic goodies reared on site. Our second hotel, the delightful, rustic-chic La Bastide de Marie, where we stay for three nights (dining for two), is nestled amid vineyards at the heart of the Luberon. The hotel's home-grown tipples – red, white and rose - nicely complement dishes such as: Provencal-style 'caillettes' (a type of meatball); foamy basil, goat's cheese and zucchini soup; risotto with Vaucluse mushrooms and truffles; profiteroles with lime tree blossom and lemon frosted with juniper and thyme; and creme brulee infused with lavender grown on the estate. Just as eye-catching – and tummy-pleasing – is the huge slab of jabugo (wild pig ham) that dominates the salad and aperitif bar.
I find myself shaving slices off this during the breakfast buffets, too. While our lengthy, languid evening meals ensure we (surely) swallow more calories than we've shed, pigging out first thing in the morning – on eggs, croissants, pain au chocolat, cream cheese, yoghurts, fruits and copious cups of coffee – provides me with ample energy for our morning rides (typically the most taxing chunk of our daily exercise). This is particularly true on day three. Most days we usually tackle around 50km, but at the halfway point of our tour, we're given the chance to double that. I'm the only one to take Marcos up on the 'Century Ride' option, however, and for much of the first hour I almost wished I'd had a lie-in. Not only is it rather chilly – it initially feels more like five degrees instead of the average afternoon temperature of 25 degrees – but we're faced with two heart-pounding hill climbs that have me grasping for my water bottles, while Marcos, his legs moving with rhythmic, piston-like efficiency, eases off into the distance.
Things get easier, though, especially when whooshing down another hill that goes on and on and on, with the odometer/speedometer on my slick 30-gear hybrid bike hitting 50km/h (although that feels thrillingly fast, Marcos tells me that Tour de France competitors often top 100km/h). Just as pleasurable is the long, lazy cafe au lait break, beside the newspaper-reading and cigarette-chuffing patrons of Le Cafe du Cours, in the grey stone medieval town of Reillanne (one of about a dozen gorgeously photogenic hilltop settlements that we ascend to during the week). Marcos and I eventually catch up with our co-riders who are far less sweaty than us, having being transported 30km down the 'Century' route with their bikes (all tour, we're shadowed by another guide, Tessa, in the Butterfield support van; and our sporadic rest breaks are keenly anticipated thanks to her freshly-cut melons, oranges, bananas, cereal bars, sweeties and chilled soft drinks). Traffic, incidentally, isn't a major issue for us. We mostly navigate tranquil back roads and flat bike paths, regularly passing other groups of cyclists – of varying fitness levels –exploring the Luberon.
We're made to feel welcome by a Luberon wine-maker, Christian Ruffinatto, who's also the mayor of Menerbes. In his tree-pimpled garden, at the foot of Menerbes, one of Provence's loveliest hilltop towns, we enjoy a wine-tasting session and gourmet picnic with Christian's friend, Kelly McAuliffe.
The only American master sommelier in France, a long-time collaborator with Michelin-starred chef Alain Ducasse, Kelly is quite the raconteur, and before we know it, it's 4pm, and we're all a bit tipsy, with, it's fair to say, little appetite – or aptitude – for any more cycling today. But tomorrow we'll be hungry for more. Trust me, life doesn't get much better than pedalling, at your own pace, through a balmy, sun-kissed Provence.
Running from May to October, Butterfield & Robinson's Provence Biking tour costs from $US4995 ($7574) per person, including five nights' accommodation, all breakfasts, three lunches, four dinners and abundant wine; www.butterfield.com
Air France fly from Sydney and Melbourne to Marseille-Provence via Hong Kong or Singapore and Paris.
Steve McKenna was a guest of Butterfield & Robinson.